Carnival of Journalism

Advice for student news media: Be radically experimental!

By Steve Outing

It’s back! The Carnival of Journalism. Hip, hip, hooray!

Huh?! The Carnival is a monthly online gabfest of (mostly) journalists who all agree to answer a common question, usually related to the future of journalism, on their respective blogs. It’s being resurrected by David Cohn, a.k.a. DigiDave, after a break. (There were other breaks before the last one. But the Carnival refuses to die.)

This month’s question: “How would you set up a student news organization in 2013 or how could an existing college news organization modernize itself?” My response is below; find others at the bottom of this Carnival webpage.

The answers are not complicated…

Well, I feel reasonably qualified to answer that question after spending the last few years as a digital-news innovation-lab program director who regularly interacted with the student-run newspaper/news service (i.e., it’s online only, no print edition) at a major university. I mostly offered advice and suggestions on digital-news innovation, which student editors and their Journalism program staff adviser could take or leave. In recent years, I’ve also judged a couple national competitions of student-media news websites. (Sadly, in a contest I was a judge for about a year ago, the majority of entries were mediocre and lacked evidence of innovation; only a select few clearly were on a path of change and reinvention of collegiate journalism.)

Based on that experience plus my years working in the world of news innovation, and now media futurism, I share these observations about, suggestions for, and (in the spirit of the future-focus theme of this blog) forecasts of what’s ahead for student media at colleges and universities.

  1. Suggestion: Don’t try to emulate dinosaur news media. It seems that many students who join an independent student news organization view it as an opportunity to practice being a journalist in the traditional sense. Get better at reporting and interviewing; learn to hone their writing quality and personal style; practice standing in front of a video camera to impart campus news in the way it’s long been done on local TV news; etc. A common instinct is to look at professional news organizations and try to be like them. A smaller portion of incoming student journalists are more aware that the news industry is in turmoil and that journalism is undergoing reinvention, and these are the few who glom onto innovation experiments and seek out advisers and partners to try new things (especially in the storytelling-technique area).
         If the top student editor is of the latter mindset, and has the support of a like-minded professional staff advisor, then there’s hope that the editor-in-chief can rally the news troops to a mission of NOT being a school clone of the local commercial newspaper and/or TV news outlet. Today’s student editors-in-chief need strong leadership qualities, more so than in the past, to avoid this trap. They must persuade and teach the first group that the work reporters and editors produce is expected to include non-traditional techniques and experimentation with new reporting tools when appropriate. He/she must persuade student journalists that experimenting is desired, and failure is OK; just be sure to learn from it.
         Of course, some students will need remedial help in improving their writing and reporting. Inventing a new kind of student media may not resonate with them when they’re still trying to master the basics of journalism. Perhaps there’s a graduate student or a willing instructor who can work with those who need remedial help. That will free up bandwidth for the top editors to focus on innovating as well as covering campus news thoroughly.


  2. Suggestion: Assemble an interdisciplinary staff. Hire or recruit not only student journalists, but also technologists and business students with entrepreneurial skills. Computer science students are great if you can get them. (Good luck with that.) But students with strong tech and coding skills also can be found elsewhere, especially in the Business school or department. Increasingly, many Journalism schools will have some journalist-technologists — that rare breed who can tell a news story with the best of them AND develop a smartphone app for the campus news organization. Recruit those students!
         With this mixed student talent pool, the editor-in-chief must establish an entrepreneurial tone and get the three groups working on teams. A programmer and a reporter might join forces for a news package that includes components where a technologist is required. A business-student staffer might work with a technologist and the editor-in-chief to develop and launch a mobile app that serves the campus community and becomes a long-term revenue source. This should be the norm of activity throughout the school year.


  3. Suggestion: Try out emerging digital tools and acquire new forms of digital equipment that can empower student journalists to try new reporting techniques and presentation styles. Enroll in the Google Glass Explorer program so that interested students can experiment with Glass’ journalistic potential. … Buy as many GoPro or other small video/still cameras as you can, and get reporters to shoot video when on an assignment, or live-stream when appropriate. … Buy an inexpensive camera drone and let student photojournalists and technologists figure out how to deploy it for some news assignments. … Experiment with beta versions of new visual storytelling software and cloud-based services. … Encourage student journalists to think creatively about how to use new digital tools, and offer trainings and brainstorming sessions when a new tool useful for reporting becomes available. … Are there local tech start-ups with interesting new products or services relevant to a news organization? Connect with founders and see about establishing a relationship where the student staff can experiment with the new products or services.
         Allow and encourage student journalists to BYOD (bring your own device). Many students already use smartphones or tablets, and GoPro action-sports video cameras are becoming common, which of course can be great reporting tools (photos, video, audio, scanning documents, etc.). Most student media organizations don’t have the budget to buy digital tools for everyone, so utilize what staffers have of their own.


  4. Suggestion: Ignore the curmudgeons, whether faculty or students. Taking the approach of inventing a new and sustainable collegiate news organization is not likely to sit well with everyone. Flak from the stick-to-the-basics journalism professor or adjunct instructor who has yet to establish a Twitter account or buy a smartphone should be ignored. With luck, most of those folks have retired by now at your school. … Some student journalists on staff may disagree with putting so much emphasis on reinvention and innovation. Use their talents for traditional news tasks and let them bow out of the innovation push if they’ll otherwise disrupt the primary goal of creating a new kind of news entity.


  5. Observation: NOT to innovate is a disservice to student journalists, journalism education, and the news industry. A collegiate news organization that only gives students experience at doing the type of journalism of a previous generation is doing no one a favor. Upon graduation, few will find jobs as traditional newspaper or TV-news reporters. They’ll have more opportunities at new kinds of news entities, or working at technology or other companies that also have become media enterprises, or using low-cost (sometimes free) digital-information technology to pursue an entrepreneurial path. To graduate with a Journalism degree and not have had the experience of working alongside technologists and entrepreneurs will make the post-graduation entrance into the chaotic new world of news media challenging, to say the least.
         Beyond the personal level (helping students be ready for the jobs of today and the future), college media have an obligation, I believe, to use the bright and creative young minds they employ to experiment boldly, and “go where no journalist has gone before!” In other words, the professional journalists and media executives of the world (the “elders”) haven’t figured out how to support in-depth, societally important journalism in the chaos that is our digital age. Collectively, college media can take more chances, experiment more, and perhaps reveal the secrets of sustainable news that the elders have failed to find. (Please, don’t just copy the previous generation!)


  6. Forecast: Digital at the center, print declining quickly. What will become of student media in the coming years? While I can make an educated prediction, the future of collegiate media depends on the choices made by student editors and the motivation skills of their professional or faculty advisors. There is no already-set-in-stone future; the individuals involved will determine what the student-media future looks like.
         Still, based on technology and societal trends, I can offer a forecast.
    • A near end of printed campus newspapers within a few years. More student newspapers are likely to cut back to one weekly edition, and serve their audiences digitally the rest of the week. Existing student weeklies likely will continue printing, but up their game with digital initiatives. … Want a prediction of when newsprint goes bye-bye for newspapers overall? Futurist Ross Dawson in his “Newspaper Extinction Timeline” (PDF) predicts that newspapers in printed form will become “insignificant” in the U.S. in 2017; then in the UK and Iceland, 2019; Canada and Norway, 2020; and on down the line.
    • “Digital first” or “digital centric” will describe most college news organizations within a year or two, rather than the small group currently having made the commitment to demote print in the overall scheme of operations.
    • As campus media get serious about digital at the center, they’ll begin to realize that mobile services and products are more important than the PC web, and adjust strategy accordingly.
    • As suggested above, campus newsrooms will begin to fill with more “outsiders” from technology and business disciplines. That will happen as student journalists come to understand that they need help from others with much deeper technology-development skills and entrepreneurial and digital-marketing know-how.
    • By the time today’s freshmen graduate in 2017, I expect that most college and university populations will be dependent on digital devices to access and interact with campus news. The mobile phone or digital tablet today look to be the obvious candidates for dominant device. But in a few years, we could be looking at alternative personal media devices being the way to students’ minds: smart watches far more advanced than today’s; smart glasses that have advanced far beyond today’s Google Glass and gone mainstream; or something still in a lab somewhere, which when released to market might turn the media/news world upside-down, again.
    • Despite the turmoil caused by disruptive technology and changing audience behavior — and staff bandwidth spent on dealing with all that — student media will keep at the top of the priority list informing the public and being the campus watchdog.
    • Finally, some creative student-media teams will have discovered how to create new collegiate-oriented digital products and services that bring in enough cash to keep student news operations running long term, and cease relying on unpaid staff as is the case too often today.
Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!